Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Old Roads

We just posted this image on our facebook page, but we thought that it deserved a spot on our blog as well.

The image is from our Matterhorn Trek. Ken Fuhrer shot the photo on the Turlo Pass between the villages of Alagna Valsesia and Macugnaga in the Pennine Alps, the highest Alps in Western Europe.

This is one of the views that you get as you hike up from the Alagna side.

True story:

I hiked the old road from Alagna to Macugnaga with a friend a few years ago, and we noticed something quite odd. At one of the switchbacks we noticed the numbers for pi and various mathematical formulae scratched into one of the paving stones.

Who was doing math on the rocks?

The irony is that pi makes perfect sense on this path. If you get a chance to hike the route, then you’ll notice that the radii of the switchbacks are symmetrical and uniform. They're also consistent all the way down the mountain. It’s as if the engineers laid a circle on the ground and then traced the turn for each switchback.

Were the road builders using pi to calculate the radius of each turn?

There are so many unanswered questions. For instance:

Why take so much time to scratch into rocks? A stick and some twine would produce perfectly formed (and repeatable) radii too.

If it wasn't the road builders, then who was it? Math professors on a hiking vacation, perhaps? A bored teenager that wanted to fool with hiking guides and their guests? Maybe the numbers weren't related to pi or math problems at all. Maybe they were UFO landing coordinates or something.

We'll never know. 

But this is why we love the Alps. They’re beautiful and filled with innumerable mysteries and wonders that can occupy the mind for years. 

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Ten Reasons (+1) Why You Need to do our Scottish Highlands Hike

From June 2-11, 2016, our small group of hikers and guides will climb mountains, taste whiskey, photograph bagpipers, and relax in stately inns on our Scotland Highlands and Islands hiking tour. Here are ten reasons why you should try to snag a spot on this trip.

1. Scotland is Hot Right Now

There’s a reason that so many films and television programs feature Scotland. The place is frickin’ gorgeous! Just do a quick google search for ‘films set in Scotland’ and you’ll see what we mean. From Harry Potter to James Bond, and Bravehart to the DaVinci Code, the list is too long to include here. The castles, the Gaelic language, the remote's overwhelming. Plus, the word has gotten out that Scottish cuisine is not just fried fish and haggis anymore. Sure, you can still get those things, but the culinary options have taken a HUGE leap forward in Scotland, with organic fare and fine wines rounding out the bill. These days, you can #GetYourHikeOn in the remote Highlands and dine at Michelin-starred restaurants too. 

2. The Isle of Skye

This photo, the next photo (Black Cuillins), and the photo for #7, were all taken on the Isle of Skye. The place is insanely magical. The Island is also covered with lots of cool old stuff including thatched roof cottages, ancient tombs, standing stones, and Iron Age forts. A person could spend a month on this Island and still have plenty to do. We'll show you our favorite hikes, and you'll love it.

3. The Black Cuillins

Do you remember the mountains of Mordor in the Lord of the Rings? That’s what the Black Cuillins are all about—black, jagged, foreboding and overshadowed by a dark lord in a tower with a large creepy cat eye wreathed in flame. 

We’re exaggerating. There’s no dark lord or flaming eye, but the Black Cuillins are dark, mysterious, and awe-inspiring mountains just the same, and hiking amongst them is worth every minute. Oh, and here’s a tip: Compasses don’t work in the heart of the Black Cuillins due to the magnetic nature of the rock, so be grateful for your guide. 

4. The Torridon

You'd move fast too if you worked a bar with over 300 different whiskeys on offer. It's not just the whiskey that makes this place top shelf, however. The Torridon has cozy log fires, Michelin quality cuisine, impeccable service, and it's all housed in a 19th century hunting estate. At dinner time, they'll start you off with canapés in the salon and then walk you through to the dining room. You'll feel like you've landed in an episode of Downton Abbey. 

5. #StandingStones Are Trending

Let’s see a show of hands. How many of you have watched the show Outlander? Here’s a quick background if you haven’t. The plot revolves around a WWII British Army Nurse named Claire Randall (Catitriona Balfe) who touches a standing stone and finds herself unexpectedly transported to 1743 Scotland during the height of the Jacobite uprisings. You can imagine what happens next—awesome scenery, tear-jerking flute and drum music, castles, muscled men in kilts, sex, violence, more sex, more flutes, nudity, rain. Outlander is an extremely dark and violent show, but it’s incredibly popular, and the Scottish countryside is now crawling with tourists in search of Randall’s mythical standing stone. You’ll see standing stones on our hiking tour, and you’ll be the hit of your social network when you upload photos of your own #StandingStones @Outlander_Starz style.  

BTW: The burial mounds in the background of the above photo were constructed 3-4,000 years ago. 

6. Talisker Distillery

This place is the salt of the earth. You can taste the ocean spray, the smoky peat moss, and the very marrow of the Highlands in the whiskey they serve. It's also the ONLY whiskey distillery on the Isle of Skye. If you like whiskey, then by all means, raise your hand when we suggest an aprés-hike tasting. 

7. Scottish Roads

Scottish roads are right (or should we say "left?") in so many ways. There's the whole drive-on-the-left-side of the road thing (steering wheel on the right), but it's a moot point in many places. The roads are so narrow that only one car can drive in the lane anyway. With views like this, pausing for an oncoming car is not a bad thing at all. 

8. Hill Walking Doesn’t Get Any Better Than This

The Scots call hiking in the Highlands 'Hill Walking,’ but don’t be fooled. Scotland has real mountains and hiking them is serious business. There are more than 200 Munros (peaks over 3,000 feet/910 meters) in Scotland, but there are hundreds more peaks that fall just shy of 3,000 feet. Some people spend their entire lives trying to summit them all. Three thousand feet may not sound very high, but when you're starting from almost sea level, it's a good climb. 

Even more, very few of the trails in Scotland are signposted or way marked. The Scots have a rule called the Outdoor Access Code which basically gives any person the right to hike wherever they please (within reason). It's expected that you'll follow common sense, don't trample someone's flower garden, for example, and that you'll leave the land in the same pristine condition that you found it. 

9. You’ll Feel Like A Bad Ass

There’s something bad ass about Scotland. The weather can be notoriously bad, the midges bite by the billions, the trails (or lack thereof) are steep, the mud is deep, and the wind is fierce. Yet, at the end of the day, you feel like crying out for MORE.

We guarantee that your chest will swell with pride when you stand on top of your first Munro, (with calves aching and cheeks stinging) and you gaze upon the remoteness and beauty of it all. It also goes without saying that your mineral-rich, peat moss-infused bath will feel that much more relaxing at the end of a long day.  

10. Full Scottish Breakfast

Let’s be clear about this. We have NO complaints about the Full Scottish Breakfast, which is standard, nay, mandatory, at virtually every inn across Scotland. The FSB includes; yogurt, fruit, muffins, cereal, eggs, sausage, bacon, potato scone, baked beans, toast soldiers (french toast), cooked tomato, cooked mushrooms, haggis, black pudding, smoked herring (kipper), oatmeal, toast, whiskey, coffee, and tea. Yes, you can have all of this at one serving, and, in fact, the Scots will be somewhat insulted if you don’t.

In the photo: Cream, brown sugar and a dram of whiskey for your oatmeal. Those instant oatmeal packets that you had as a kid will never taste the same again. 

*11. Scottish Straightforwardness

We just had to throw this in.

You won't find a lot of switchbacks on Scottish trails, and you won't find a lot of beating around the bush either. The Scots live their lives the way they climb mountains, straight on. We like it.

Just do yourself (and us) a favor. Please don't worry the livestock. 

See you in Scotland. 

Friday, February 05, 2016

Leakey's, a Great Little Scottish Bookshop with Oodles of Character

I confess. I have a thing for used bookstores housed in old stone churches. I love watching the play of light filtering through the stained glass windows. I can savor (for hours) the smell of the used books mixing with a hint of incense and oil from rituals past. And the sound of the aged wooden floors creaking under foot reminds me of a simpler time when our buildings and cultural trappings were fashioned by artisans, and not so far removed from the land.

Imagine my excitement, then, when I stumbled upon Leakey's Bookshop in Inverness, Scotland. Leakey's sells thousands of used and rare books, on "most subjects," and best of all, they're housed in an old church. 

A small placard on the outside of the building reads: Old Gaelic Church. Built 1649 for Gaelic Speakers. Rebuilt in 1792 and reconstructed in 1822 (Architect James Smith). Served as Greyfriars Free Church.

This place is heaven for people that love old stuff. 

They also have piles of antique prints (old engravings) from 18th and 19th century Scotland. The prints offer an intriguing window into the past, showing how people dressed, worked and carried out their lives. I especially enjoyed the old books on Scottish mountaineering. They were filled with illustrations and maps that could have kept me occupied for hours.

Here's another shot of the interior. They have a huge wood stove that keeps the place warm. What could be finer than a good book and the warmth of a crackling log fire on a cold day?!

Leakey's buys and sells modern books too. Be forewarned, however. This place is stacked to the rafters with rare tomes, antique maps and arcane tales. You'll need time, and you'll feel a desire to take pictures once you're inside. There's something about the color scheme of the interior and the quirkiness of the place that begs for photo-taking. Do yourself a favor though, and buy one of their postcards. You'll never catch the essence of the place as well as their photographer did. 

Go There.

Our Scottish Highlands and Islands hiking tour begins, and finishes, in Inverness this year. (We changed up the itinerary.) If you join our hike, then make sure to visit Leakey's when you're in town. They're located on the corner of Church Street and Friar's Lane.

Check out their Facebook Page, and give them a big thumbs up.  
You can also see a 360 degree view of the upstairs by clicking here

Photos: by Carolyn Costin-Martin and Chris Pranskatis